Friday, July 23, 2021

Paul and the Practice of Laying on of Hands

In the undisputed letters1 Paul does not use the expression "Laying hands on…" In fact, he does not even use the word "laying on" (epitithēmi). It is doubtful that he even shared Luke's view of the Holy Spirit: that the Holy Spirit was a gift that could be passed on by the laying on of  hands and that resulted in "signs and wonders by the hands of the apostles" (Acts 5:12). I assume that in Acts these signs and wonders would be considered dramatic displays of divine power, such as, for example, the wonder-working hands of spirit filled apostles (Acts 28:8-9), the appearance of tongues as of fire and speaking in other tongues (Acts 2:3-4), sudden death to those who "agree together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord" (Acts 5:9-10), the healing of the sick and demon-possessed people by Peter's shadow (Acts 5:12-16), and the like.

            In the undisputed letters Paul seems to associate the presence of God's spirit/Holy Spirit within one as initiating with faith in Jesus (1 Cor 3:16; Rom 8;9-11). One receives the Spirit by hearing with faith (Gal 3:2-5). In fact, no one can say "Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 12:3). There is no human intermediary through whom God's spirit comes; rather the spirit comes from God (1 Thess 4:8; 2 Cor 1:22). "Things from God are freely given" (1 Cor 2:12; Rom 3:24). Paul does write about "spiritual gifts" but speaks of these gifts as given by God through, and inspired by, the spirit (1 Cor 12:4-26). "You are Christ's body," Paul writes, and God "appoints" functionaries for the gatherings of the body (1 Cor 12:27-31).

God as spirit is described by Paul in various ways: "the spirit" and "his spirit" (Rom 8:11), "the spirit of God" (Rom 8:9), "the spirit of holiness" (Rom 1:4), "the spirit of the living God" (2 Cor 3:3), "his holy spirit" (1 Thess 4:8), the "holy spirit" (Rom 5:5).  Spirit and holy spirit are used interchangeably in 1 Cor 12:3. He even uses the expression "spirit of Christ" interchangeably with the "spirit of God" (Rom 8:9-11; Gal 4:6-7).2

How then should one explain 2 Cor 12:12 and Romans 15:18-19? (which sound very Lucan and in the spirit of Luke/Acts)? Paul writes to the Corinthians: "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you in all patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works." How might Paul have understood this kind of language (1 Cor 4:20), when he gives the reader no examples of such dramatic displays of divine power as are found in Acts?

            One possibility is that he uses these power expressions to describe his personal interactions with people and to enhance the power of God's spirit in human relationships.

When I came to you brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5).

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:3-5).

In other words, Paul is claiming that whatever successes he may have had in advancing the gospel enterprise is due to the power of God's spirit working in and through him, in spite of his many weaknesses (1 Cor 4:8-21; 2 Cor 13:3-4). He did not correct his critics, the "superlative apostles" (2 Cor 11:5), when they claimed that his "bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account" (2 Cor 10:9-11), and he admitted that he was unskilled in public speaking (2 Cor 11:6). The only thing he could brag about were his many weaknesses (2 Cor 11:16-33; 12:6-10). His claim is that the power of God works through him, so that when he is weak, then he is strong (2 Cor 12:7-10). What he preaches comes not only in word but also "in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (1 Thess 1:5; 2 Rom 15:18-21), so that through the power of God's holy Spirit, the Corinthians may abound in hope (Rom 15:13). The signs of a true apostle are the building up of the gathering of saints, the tearing down of every stronghold blocking the Gospel of Christ, and his strong successes among the Gentiles, and the like.

            One overlap with displays of spiritual power as found in Acts is speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:1-40; Acts 2:1-13), which is described by Paul as "uttering mysteries in the spirit."3 Speaking in tongues is a personal experience. The one who speaks in tongues "edifies himself" (1 Cor 14:4), but prophecy "edifies the church" (1 Cor 14:4). Paul claims that he "speaks in tongues" more than the rest of the Corinthians (1 Cor 14:18), which for Paul seems to be a kind of personal prayer language that only benefits the one praying (1 Cor 14:14). He considers the gift of tongues a lesser gift because it requires an interpreter (1 Cor 14:27-28). In church, Paul would rather speak five words of prophecy than 10,000 words in a tongue (1 Cor 14:19), because of the obvious benefits of prophecy to the church (1 Cor 14:2-254). In this section it appears that Paul is attempting to lessen the high value that the Corinthians presumably place on speaking in tongues and to advance the value of prophecy for the church.

Paul's critics, whom he snidely called "superlative apostles," were in Paul's view false apostles, deceitful workmen (2 Cor 11:13-15), and peddlers of God's word (2:17). They accused him, among other things, of "not being an apostle at all, for his ministry among the Corinthians had not been marked by signs and wonders and mighty works (12:1-12)."4 Paul, however, insisted that that he was an apostle and had performed the signs of a true apostle among the Corinthians (2 Cor 12:11-12) in the sense that I have argued above, but specifically not in the sense that Luke portrayed in Acts.

Should it matter to readers of the New Testament that Luke and Paul do not agree on the character of God's holy spirit?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 Thessalonians.

2Hedrick, "Is the Holy Spirit part of a Trinity," pp. 177-179 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 177.

3Tongues in Acts are different from tongues in 1 Corinthians. In Acts the "gift" of tongues seems to be that the speaker speaks in his native language while others hear in their own native languages. It is not as in Paul a personal prayer language.

4S. M. Gilmour, "Corinthians, Second Letter to The," pp. 692-98 in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, 1962), 696.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Laying on Hands, To Pass On the Holy Spirit

In ordination services today many religious groups practice the custom of laying hands on candidates for ministry. This is their moment of ordination in the religious group. The laying on of hands appears in the Israelite tradition for several purposes: to transfer the sins of the people to the scapegoat (Lev 16:21-22), to identify a blasphemer by those who heard him blaspheme God’s Name (Lev 24:14), laying hands upon bulls, one of which is selected as a sin offering (Num 8:12), to do physical violence to someone (Neh 13:21; Est 3:6), to appoint a new leader, following Moses, who (Num 27:15-23) would be full of the spirit of wisdom (Deut 34:9), and speak the words of Yahweh (Deut 18:18).

The practice of laying on of hands is referred to in several New Testament texts with no certain reason as to why hands are being laid on someone (1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6; Heb 6:1-2). In other cases, specific reasons are given: sick people are healed by having hands laid on them (Mark 6:5; 16:18; Luke 4:40; Luke 13:13; Acts 28:8), laying on of hands is an act done before praying for someone (Matt 19:13-15), laying on of hands is done to bring someone back to life (Mark 5:23), laying on of hands is a metaphor for doing physical violence to someone (Luke 21:12), hands are laid on someone to commission them (Acts 6:6; 13:2-3).

            The most interesting reason for the laying on of hands is a feature that appears only in Acts. It is a means of giving the Holy Spirit. Peter and John are dispatched from Jerusalem to lay hands on certain people in Samaria who “had received the word of God” and had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Yet, the Holy Spirit had not fallen on any of them. Peter and John lay hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-24; see also Acts 9:17; 19:6). Curiously the Holy Spirit apparently also operates independently of the human medium and the Spirit simply spontaneously “falls” on whomever it chooses (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15).

This curiosity (Spirit by hands/no hands) raises several questions. Why didn’t the Holy Spirit spontaneously fall on those in Samaria (Acts 8:14-24)? Why was human mediation needed in that particular instance? Does a necessary relationship exist between the hands of Peter and John and the gift of the Holy Spirit? In other words, do the Apostles control the giving of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands?

            It is not surprising that there should be Greco-Roman and Near Eastern parallels before the Christian period for the laying on of hands. Hands are laid on to heal, to exorcise demons, to install officials, and to consecrate.1 I am more interested in the Apostles as a reservoir of the Holy Spirit than with the other reasons why hands are laid on in these pre-Christian parallels. Is there a Greco-Roman parallel for special persons being infused with divine power? Apostles (Acts 11:24) were said to be “full of the Holy Spirit,” as were the seven chosen to administer the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1-6, 7:55). Even disciples bestowed the Holy Spirit through the laying on of their hands (Acts 9:10, 17). If these persons in the early church were “full” of God’s Spirit, we should likely think of the Spirit residing in them in a fashion similar to that in the possession by evil spirits, for example, in the story told by Jesus (Luke 11:24-26=Matt 12:43-45). In other words, God’s Spirit possessed the Apostles, rather than the Apostles possessing the Spirit.

We should not think of God’s Holy Spirit as an appendage to God, or as a second entity so that one may distinguish it as an entity independent from God; for “the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17-18). Hence, the depiction of the Apostles being possessed by God’s spirit is a kind of “divine” possession similar to the slave girl who had a “Pythian Spirit” in Acts 16:16. The Pythia was an “inspired” oracle through whom the God Apollo spoke. “She was the instrument of the God’s revelations at Delphi” in ancient Greece.2 “Crowned with laurel, she sat on the tripod [of the God Apollo], became possessed by the god, and, shaking a laurel, prophesied under divine inspiration.”3 In like manner the Apostles and other disciples are thought to be possessed by “God, who is the Spirit,” to perform their mighty deeds, as indeed was Jesus (Luke 4:1).

Except for the name of the authority under which the act occurs, there is little difference between The Pythia’s possession by Apollo for prophetic utterances, the slave girl’s possession by the Pythian spirit, or the Apostles’ possession by the Holy Spirit. They were all thought to be possessed by divine power (Acts 1:8, 8:19, 10:38; Rom 15:13). That people can be possessed by spirits both good and evil is simply part of the belief structure of antiquity. The only difference is the naming of the different authorities under which the various acts are performed.

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1John Fleter Tipei, “The laying on of Hands in the New Testament” (PH.D. Thesis, University of Sheffield, July 2000), 81-95

2Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), 214. See also Hedrick, “Prophecy, Divination, and Fate,” Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 250-56.

3Christine Sourvinou-Inwood, “Delphic oracle” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.; Oxford University Press, 1999), 445.